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Dog: “My people are so well behaved.”

We have all been affected by Alzheimer’s disease (AD), or a related disorder that results in declines in cognitive ability uncharacteristic of normal aging. For some the familiarity may be all too salient – a grandparent, uncle, or elementary school teacher. Others may have a more distant connection – perhaps they know a friend whose grandmother is struggling with the disease. My Aunt was recently diagnosed. We’re not particularly close, but the news has certainly taken an emotional toll on my extended family. Regardless of personal connection, AD is extremely prevalent, and as the population continues to gray, its impact is becoming increasingly widespread.

Prior to learning more about the disease in class over the past few months, I was under the impression that AD was primarily a memory-based disorder. Movies like The Notebook function to perpetuate this belief, as they often accentuate the forgetting of family members as its primary drawback. Although memory is certainly among the deficits associated with the disease, McCabe et al (2002) indicate that language, mood, judgment, and social behaviors are also impaired. In this particular study they focus their attention on behavioral disorders, noting that symptoms including agitation, aggression, delusions, wandering, and vocalizations often accompany AD, especially in its later stages. To date many methods have been employed to help in managing these side effects, ranging from changing the living environments of patients, to switching caregivers, to administering medication. The use of companion animals as a form of treatment has garnered quite a bit of attention in recent years, but most research into the effects of pet therapy has been limited to short-term analysis. McCabe et al (2002) address this issue by observing the impact of introducing a resident dog into an Alzheimer’s special care unit (SCU) on the behavior of its residents.

The researchers observed 22 patients (all of whom had been diagnosed with AD or a related disorder) in an extended health care facility over the course of five weeks. Staff members used the Nursing Home Behavior Problem Scale (NHBPS) to document problem behaviors one week before the introduction of a trained therapy dog into the facility and weekly for the four weeks following. Behavior was documented during both day shifts and night shifts. The dog was present at the facility from morning until evening, and was free to interact with patients both in facility common rooms and patients’ individual bedrooms. Participants in the day shift displayed significantly fewer problem behaviors over the course of the study, whereas those in the night shift exhibited no change (the authors acknowledge that this result warrants further exploration, so I’ll focus on the daytime result).

The results of this study are especially meaningful, as they’ve extended previous literature to reveal the long-term benefits of having an animal that resides in a treatment facility. The mere presence of a single dog among several patients significantly decreased problem behaviors associated with AD. This result could serve to encourage supplemental methods to treating these behavioral problems. Perhaps it could even help to replace the use of expensive mood-altering medications that often result in unpleasant side effects for patients. Due to its low cost, and positive behavioral outcomes, this is a potential win-win for patients and caregivers alike; the hope is that further research will expand on this finding and promote the widespread use of resident pets in treatment facilities.



McCabe, B. W., Baun, M. M., Speich, D., & Agrawal, S. (2002). Resident dog in the Alzheimer’s special care unit. Western Journal of Nursing Research,24(6), 684-696.

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  1. December 3rd, 2013 at 16:46 | #1

    I really enjoyed the topic of this post. Anything to do with the relationship between people and animals, especially dogs, is always an interesting read. I think that studies like this this one show just how important having a pet can be to a person’s emotional well-being and it shows in how they react to the world around them. Do you think they’ve thought of doing trials like this with Autistic children? From what I’ve read some of the behaviors that are associated with AD, like changes in mood and social behaviors, are similar to those of children with Autism.

  2. mjhunsic
    December 3rd, 2013 at 22:02 | #2

    This is interesting, especially in regards to long term effects of animal therapy on cognition, memory and attention. The previous commenter mentions this type of experiment but with autistic people. However, deficits in attention (common in AD) seem reminiscent of children with ADHD who may benefit greatly from treatment/therapy that doesn’t incorporate highly abusable drug treatments.

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